“Take Me To America”

(Preface: this isn’t a fun blog with colorful pictures and cute kids, but immigration is a hot topic right now, and I see some effects from it everyday. If you usually scroll through for pictures or videos, hang on for the next blog.)

I’ve talked a little bit in some of my education blogs about how English is the official language in The Gambia. However, English is rarely spoken, especially in the villages. There is one phrase that seems to have stuck in the English learning department, and it goes like this: “America is a nice place. I want to go to America. Take me to America.” (sometimes they’ll even throw in: “New York! Chicago! Los Angeles!”)

After almost a year in The Gambia, it’s a little disheartening to have a full length conversation with someone in Wolof, chatting about their farm or my work in the clinic or usually just about the weather, for it to end like this. It feels like whenever there’s a lull in the conversation, it’s their chance to switch to English and run through this scripted request. I’ve been offered babies, children, and almost every woman in the village with the persuading request of, “Take them to America with you!” Sometimes they’re joking, I like to think they’re usually joking, but some people are dead serious.

So serious that going “the back way,” meaning sneaking onto (or paying for) a boat to Europe and dying at sea has become a leading killer of young men in The Gambia. People know full ships of Gambians who have either died at sea trying to make it to Europe or are still stranded in a Liberian refugee camp, stuck halfway between. Peace Corps holds workshops and leadership trainings for students about the dangers of “the back way.”

People are struggling here. We’re not starving (I may have even thrown on a few pounds with all the rice we eat), but we do have a few malnourished children (11 in my village to be exact) and definitely a lot of undernourished people. People want education (well, some of them do) and they want employment. They see that (and stacks upon stacks of hundred dollar bills) and more in “America.” So they ask the white guy in the village to take them with me when I go on my airplane back home in a year. Sometimes they get angry that I can come here and live, but they can’t go there and do the same thing. They say it’s unfair, and maybe it is. I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about the whole thing.

It all comes down to the fact that I was born there and they were born here. In the end, so much is decided just by where we’re born on the planet. In Public Health, you can chart someone’s health pretty accurately based solely on the zip code in which they were born. That seems about the most unfair thing in the world, and I wish there was an easy solution to remedy it.

My counter argument (to myself) is the effect of Brain Drain. In West Africa, I see the effects everyday. Successful, intelligent, strong individuals (more often than not, men) take their success, intelligence, and strength and buy a ticket to a better place. And never come back. They may send money or visit once or twice, but they’re busy making a new life. That person could have been a Gambian teacher, doctor, or progressive politician, but now being “Gambian” is just a part of their background. My village is filled with wives and children whose husbands and fathers are in Germany, Italy, the UK, or the United States of America. And it sucks for the people here.

But then (I argue back to myself), wouldn’t I do the same thing? Oh, to have cold water and cheeseburgers and job opportunities! Didn’t I do the same thing? I had every educational opportunity in the world and the support to go along with it (thanks Mom and Dad) and I left my home to go live and work overseas in a different country. Okay, it’s not exactly the same thing, but you get what I’m saying. We want adventure, we want growth and love and new things. No matter where we were born.

Some kids tell me they want to grow up to be a Peace Corps volunteer in America. Some Peace Corps volunteers get married here, take their spouses to America, and live happy lives. So basically, I don’t know how I feel about the whole thing. Some days, I say, “Haha! My bag is too big to take you to America!” and run away. Other days I say, “No! Stay here and make your country better.”

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